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Author: chrisd

You don’t have to be a genius to be a leader of genius!

I have been leading companies for 25 years – my earliest challenges were to rebuild a broken Porsche brand and then to inspire the team at BMW GB to achieve a 500% improvement in profit while transforming the service levels of an industry. Since then I have founded start-ups, driven turnarounds and built companies in numerous sectors. Our teams have won awards and been recognised as some of the best in the world. They have also created over GBP 3 billion in shareholder value.  

Now that the immediate shock of the pandemic is receding, we need to lead our teams in a way which encourages agility and dynamic growth. My view is that people are incredible. Ordinary people, led well, can achieve extraordinary results.  I believe that people can be inspired to stop chasing immediate rewards but rather think about building something that lasts, creating something of which they are proud. The principles and techniques of inspirational leadership are transferable. I help leaders and teams to deliver them: 

1. High performance begins and ends with engagement.  The leader’s role is to establish a clear vision of success. Everyone needs to understand what success will look like, what it will sound like and what it will feel like. What will it mean for the customer when we get there? Everyone in the team has a role to play so we give them the opportunity to get excited and engaged. 

2. Challenges are opportunities for growth.  Address the fear of change by discussing the new status we are striving for. Evaluate carefully the opportunities and the marketplace and deal only in facts. Get excited together by being enthusiastic about the freedom to make real and substantial change. Invite team members to move quickly.   

3. Make it easy for the team to contribute. Build a clear, but simple, plan. Share it. Invite comments and ideas. Excite the high performers to become leaders at every level in the organisation. Be totally inclusive of talent and ideas – let people dream! Communicate the successes of individual’s ideas and improvements. 

4. Praise first, challenge later. Provide regular feedback. Make heroes of the high performing teams by praising their approach to a challenge. A positive approach can be transferable to other areas. Leadership is about creating a positive culture and letting the team run. It is not the end of the world if it goes wrong.

5. Recognise that people are amazing. Leading teams to high performance is about creating the belief that ideas and challenge are progress. Set a positive example, be approachable, consistent, and make champions visible. Positive belief is an energy which transfers to others. 

Kevin Gaskell and Richard Branson address the Global Transformation Forum

The Global Transformation Forum is the pioneering platform for CEOs, policymakers, athletes and creatives. It is an annual opportunity for delegates from all over the world to be inspired by the stories of some of the world’s most iconic torchbearers in the game of transformation. 

Business leaders Kevin Gaskell and Richard Branson, both recognised as world leading entrepreneurs, were invited to share their thoughts and stories with a select audience of industry leaders and politicians. 

Reflecting on their careers of founding and developing world class businesses they inspired the audience to dare to dream about what is possible if a fully aligned team shares a common vision of success. 

Kevin discussed with the audience how the principles of world class leadership are transferable between sectors. He explained how he has led businesses ranging from 7 to 7,000 employees by applying a common philosophy of ensuring a clear ‘Vision of Success’ and delegating authority and accountability to the team within the business. 

Side by Side – Kevin and Matthew Gaskell

Kevin and his son Matthew, recently broke the world record as part of the fastest 5-man team to row across the Atlantic. The pair have been adventuring together since their first trip to the South Pole when Matt was just 17 – and they have no intention of stopping any time soon. 

Kevin: 

“Adventuring is something I’ve always done, although I wouldn’t always have called it that. I grew up in North Wales, so weekends as a teenager were spent hiking and climbing in Snowdonia. I gradually increased the scope of my adventures and then, when I was 40, I climbed to Everest base camp. 

The accommodation was, let’s just say, basic – I mean, a tent would have been luxury! But it was the first time I’d seen mountains of that scale. You’d come out in the morning and look at these wonderful mountains. It was incredible. I decided I wanted to do more adventuring, and because I work for myself I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to take the time off between projects to do just that. 

In 2004 my sister Jayne died, and I decided I would do another big trip to raise money for the Cancer Treatment Center in North Wales that had cared for her. I wasn’t sure what the trip should be. I was chatting to Vendee Globe sailor Pete Goss who is a friend of mine. Pete said that he had a plan to sail to the North Pole on a land yacht but wanted to walk there first to check out the terrain. He said, “We need some crazy people. Do you want to come?” And I said, “Yeah, I’d love to.” Alan Chambers MBE, the polar explorer, was the guide for the team. 

Of course, if you walk to the North Pole, you don’t get back and say, “Well, that’s it. All done.” So when Alan said, “Why don’t we go to the South Pole as well?” I thought, “Why not?” And that’s when Matt, who must have been about 15 when we started planning the trip said, “Well, you’re not going without me this time.”

By the time we got the expedition together he was 17. I admit I was worried about whether he’d have the stamina. To be honest, I was worried whether I’d have the stamina! But in the end he was the strongest of all of us. I remember around day 10, we got to the end of the day and were completely knackered, and he was outside the tent building a snowman – in minus 40C! After that trip we went back to the North Pole together, so that he could see the difference in the geography, and we’ve been adventuring together ever since. 

Matt and I went to Everest together a few years ago as members of the support team for Alan Chambers MBE and his Extreme Classrooms initiative. The programme supports children with special educational needs and challenges and develops their confidence beyond the classroom. Alan created ‘the coldest classroom on earth’, which took kids on an expedition to Svalbard, an island between Norway and the North Pole, ‘the hottest classroom on earth’, in the Rift Valley. And then ‘the highest classroom on earth’ to Everest base camp. 

Probably the most enjoyable adventure together has been our most recent trip, rowing across the Atlantic and breaking the world record. I found it incredibly challenging. We were a team of 5 guys – I was 60 years old and the rest of the crew were in their late 20s. In terms of the fitness required it was incredibly tough. We were rowing 2 hours on, 2 hours off 24/7, for 36 days. Also, when you’re enclosed in a 20 foot rowing boat for six weeks, there’s nowhere to go. You can’t get off or even take a break. Everyone’s so tired and people can get grumpy. Being with people who you know you can get along with is really important.  

Most of the time Matt and I get on very well but we’re actually quite different. I’m the emotional one. Something will cheese me off and I’ll go off with a big bang but 10 minutes later I’ve forgotten what I was annoyed about. He’s far more logical than me. He thinks situations through and stays calm. There were many challenges on the Atlantic crossing – including capsizing the boat mid ocean – but ultimately the team finished the race a) with a world record, b) winning our class, and c) as great friends. 

It’s such a joy to have had all of these adventures with my son. I’m lucky to have a son and a daughter. My daughter doesn’t enjoy expeditions but we do skydive together. I always hoped that my son would come with me and share my interests. But I’ve never had to drag him. We enjoyed two trips where we walked and canoed across Scotland, one when he was 15, the second for his 18th birthday. I said to him, “What do you want for your 18th birthday?” And he said, “I’d like to do another trip across Scotland. This time I will plan it and lead it.” And I said, “That’s not a gift to you, that’s a gift to me because I get to spend a week with you on another adventure.” 

I’m incredibly proud of Matt. I think he’s a fantastic guy. He’s one of the brightest blokes I’ve ever met. His IQ is off the scale. And honestly, he can achieve whatever he wants to do. So yeah, I’m completely proud of him and I enjoy his company hugely. He’s phenomenal. He really is. But don’t tell him I said that!”

Matthew: 

“If Kev hadn’t done the things he’d done, I’m not sure that I would ever have started adventuring. It’s a lot easier to go and ask to be a part of a polar expedition than it is to set it up yourself, especially as a 16 or 17 year old. 

I don’t think I ever saw him as an adventurer though, really. He was a businessman. He worked in an office. I know he went off into the mountains and then Everest base camp when I was about 10 and I remember that was a big trip. But it wasn’t until he did the North Pole that I saw that there was something to this, something I wanted to get involved in. 

We were always an outdoorsy family doing activities like scuba diving or skiing – holiday style hobbies. But certainly we weren’t breaking rock climbing records when I was 10 years old. Nothing like that. 

Our first adventure together was a camping hike across the Brecon Beacons when I was about 12. The first longer trip I remember us doing together, before the South Pole, was the canoe trip across Scotland when I was about 15. I think that definitely started a change in my relationship with Kev. I think everyone has a moment as they’re growing up where they see that their parents aren’t superheroes anymore, they’re real people. It was on that trip that I started to realise that he wasn’t just my dad, he was a man, with strengths and weaknesses, just like me. Once you realise that, I think maybe you have a different kind of relationship.

I was 17 when we went to the South Pole but I certainly didn’t feel as though I was too young to be in the team. I felt extremely lucky to have been given the opportunity. But beyond that, I was just part of the group. And Kev has always allowed me to be one of the team. Sometimes other team members don’t immediately realise that we’re related. It’s hard to say how I found the trip because I didn’t really have a frame of reference. It was just an incredible experience. 

I’m definitely a person that likes to do things for a purpose. Where I think Kev is more focused on the memories or experiences, I like to be able to take something tangible away from a trip. That’s why for me the race across the Atlantic was probably my favourite trip, because of the fact that we set the world record together. 

Doing something like that with a close member of your family has advantages and disadvantages compared to doing it with strangers or even people you only know a little bit. When conflict, or a crisis, happens, you know how the other person is going to react. You know how they’ve reacted in the past. So you can deal with that in a different way. Sometimes that familiarity helps, but sometimes it can be tougher. 

But you also know exactly what skills they have and what experience they’ve got. You know what they can do without, what they find tough, or how they will approach a specific challenge without you having to ask or raise the issue. And that’s a definite advantage on a long expedition. 

I’m glad I’ve had this opportunity to experience so much with Kev. I’d love to make a career out of adventuring and leading expeditions. That’s what I’m working towards. I want to help other people to experience the amazing adventures that I have enjoyed. Adventuring will always be a big part of my life. And I’m sure we’ll continue to go on trips together – we’ve got a couple we’re planning at the moment. I’m definitely proud of him. But don’t tell him I said that!”

What great leaders should be doing to get ahead right now…

Never let a good crisis go to waste … so said Winston Churchill. And he should have known. While he never saw a Corona virus pandemic, he did successfully lead Great Britain through the darkest days of the second world war.  

I am grateful that I have never seen a war, but I have led companies through extremely difficult times. These included Black Monday in 1987 when the stock market fell by 36%, the 1990’s recession when interest rates peaked at 14.8% with unemployment at 11%, and the global recession of 2008 – 2010. Each of these events led to the demise of many good businesses. When we were deep in the dip, we worried whether the markets would ever recover – but each time they did.

The reality of the Covid-19 pandemic has been terrible and terrifying and should not be minimised. But eventually it too will pass. The economy will recover and great businesses will be built or rebuilt. The key task for many business leaders right now is to ensure that their business is still around to benefit from the investment overhang and opportunity for growth which will follow. The current period of value destruction and market starvation will be followed by a period of market expansion and consumer demand. In today’s unprecedented climate many leaders will make immediate decisions under the most extreme short term pressure. Unfortunately, this can lead to poor choices.

My experience of leading companies through the economic disaster zone is that, with different thinking, it is possible to emerge stronger than ever. During the most difficult of times the most able leaders will reassess and clarify the vision of success for the organisation. They will challenge and redefine the business model and prepare their team for long term success. Great leaders will step ahead. The way that I have led this is:

Cash – most businesses experienced an immediate and very substantial drop in cashflow at the beginning of the pandemic. Whether you did or you didn’t the best leaders know that cash is king. So, interrogate your income statement – look at every line (and I mean EVERY line) and identify creative and intelligent ways to reduce expenditure or liquidate assets to preserve cash. Your first loss is your cheapest loss. Defer dividend payments and bonuses. Give the company the breathing space to prepare fully for the long term. Banks are making warm noises and governments have provided programmes of fiscal stimulation which your company may have qualified for – but look to the future and consider extremely carefully how your cash flow will be affected by the new market order we are now living in. 

Communicate, communicate, communicate – Brave leaders are open and honest. Difficult decisions need to be made and everyone in the team knows that. But the support for those decisions depends upon a shared understanding of what and why. Uncertainty breeds rumours and false information. Regular briefings, CEO news updates, conference calls, visibility and transparency will reduce fear and improve confidence. Provide forward news – build trust by telling the team before telling the market. Talk about long term goals as well as short term actions. Explain what success looks like and work back from there.

Clients – make sure that they know that you respect and value them. Include them in your communications and discuss your decisions with them – and don’t forget that your suppliers and business partners are your clients as well. Ask how you can help them. What are their fears? What would they want you to do? Remember this is a long term strategy and you will need all of them when the gloom lifts. Strengthen those relationships now with investment in time and attention. You will be paid back many times over when the environment improves.

Courage – Above all, stay calm and build. Running a successful business is simple but it is not easy. In times of challenge, strong and clear leadership is key. Remain confident, make clear considered decisions for the short term but also use this period as an opportunity to reassess your business for the long term. Is your vision of success crystal clear? Does your entire team know and understand where the business is heading? Leaders can be guilty of not challenging the norm, of being satisfied with following procedure and tradition. It takes courage to question why things are done the way that they are. In a period of crisis, the best leaders will first secure the ship – but then they will take the latitude of these extraordinary times to review and plan. When was the last time that your company critically analysed the fundamentals of the business with everything on the table for inclusion? The world may never be the same again so now is the time to ensure you know where your business will fit into the future.

I have led numerous companies through this process. Sometimes the crisis has been created internally but mostly the business has had to react to an external market or economic shift. Strategic review should not be reserved only for times of trouble. The current seismic and unexpected disruption to the world is a time when the successful leaders of the future will reset and rebuild. Such a rethink will boost corporate performance and deliver extraordinary results just when the competition is thinking only of survival.

If I can help you, let’s talk

Crazy law of unintended consequences

If you are an unemployed young – or not so young – person, fulfilling long term employment is hard to find at the moment. The chances are that the situation will get worse before it gets better. To help to change this situation, I am working with my graduate son to create a new company which will guide and support people to start their own businesses. Our ambition is to catalyse the creation of 1,000 new enterprises within 1,000 days. Big ambition but hey, dare to dream!

We approached a well known high street bank (where we are both existing customers) to open a bank account for our newly registered company. We don’t need a loan, credit card or budgetary support. At this stage we just want to open a dedicated business account to place some of our own funds in to cover the start up and running costs of the new business.

The very polite business manager at the bank helpfuly informed us that this was not possible. Due to the number of sham companies set up to claim a government bounce back loan – before quickly disappearing along with the £50,000 (apparently they all claimed the maximum £50,000 BBL but nobody noticed) – banks are no longer offering new accounts to new businesses. To open an account, it was explained, the new company needs to show a trading history – specifically to show a record of issued and paid invoices. But, we argued, the business can’t get it’s invoices paid unless it has an account to get paid into… yes, said the helpful manager, other people have said that!

So an unintended consequence of the generous BBL scheme offered by the UK government is that the banks have firmly closed and locked the stable door after the rogue horses have bolted. Net result – honest new entrepreneurs cannot begin trading. Our target of 1,000 new businesses is beginning to look even more challenging.

Leaving the EU – an opportunity for leaders to win

The vote has been cast and the result is known. It doesn’t matter which way individuals voted. UK PLC has to get on with planning and preparing for the new world. Nobody fully knows what independence from the EU will mean. Of course it will be challenging, of course there is uncertainty.

I don’t accept that Britain leaving the EU should be the next ‘it’ to be blamed for poor performance within businesses. Challenging and unforgiving markets are a constant reality. Extraordinary opportunities are available to those companies which can aggressively meet the needs of the changed market. The best companies will see this change as an invitation to succeed – to reconfigure their model, pursue new markets, define a different and more efficient regime. The best companies turn turbulence and uncertainty to their advantage. The critical differentiator is leadership.

I enjoy working with companies to make sure that they are prepared for success. My speaking, coaching and masterclasses are built on my personal experience of what it takes to be a serial winner. The best leaders can achieve absolute focus within their organisation. The best leaders can release rapid creativity. The best leaders inspire ordinary people to achieve extraordinary results. As a CEO and Chairman I have been through this process many times. I have worked with teams in the depths of recessions and through massive market turbulence. When our competitors fell over we grew stronger. We focused our business. We developed simple but effective tools and processes which aligned our teams, inspired commitment and achieved astonishing results.

I look forward to sharing these lessons and tools with businesses who want to win, who want to change the terms of the debate – from resistance to performance, from apprehension to excitement. If you are engaged in one of the companies who want to win I anticipate sharing success with you. The next few years are an exciting opportunity for leaders with the desire, skill and determination to win. I’m looking forward to meeting the next generation of extreme leaders.

I love it when a plan comes together

I build businesses in phases. In our companies we have developed the 1000 Day Plan™ which we use to visualise, prioritise and expedite. The plan raises the heartbeat of the business, lets each team member see where they make a difference and coordinates activity. It is simple but very effective and I now use the toolkit to help my masterclass and strategic workshop clients to accelerate change in their business. We also apply the 1000 Day Plan™ to get a fast start in our new companies.

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Turning a wrong into a very much right!

I am often asked whether I have experienced calamities in business. I have, and recently suffered another when one of our businesses suffered a catastrophic failure. A remote operation, led by a misguided executive providing disingenuous records shielded by false communication caused the business to run into the ground. By the time the covers were lifted and the reality of the situation was seen it was too late. The business was irreparably damaged with many jobs lost. Read more

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“His presentation was totally authentic allowing our selected high potential team to really see and feel what it means to be a visionary, inspiring leader.”

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“I thought Kevin was quite simply inspirational. I loved the fact that he was still down to earth despite his obvious success. I thought the message he gave could be adopted and implemented into any business…”

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“We were completely in awe of your presentation! Your delivery is quite unique in that you relate so comfortably with the audience and you have ‘truly lived’ every moment of each experience. I have heard many speakers who have presented about their experiences but have lacked your ability to articulate from your heart”

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“Thank you for making our leadership conference so special. The response from the audience was sky high! You are world-class, yet humble, and you make people feel as though anyone can achieve what they set their minds to be. What a gift! Thank you, thank you.”

Don’t promise, just prove

When asked to define the qualities of a great leader descriptions often include the terms – transparent, honest, brave, approachable, determined.

I have worked with many great leaders, at all levels in organisations. I have witnessed the actions of leaders who work hard, who are passionate, who encourage, and who make a real difference. The single word that I would use to describe the common characteristic of the most successful leaders is trustworthy. When they say they will do something, they do it. And everyone knows that they will do it. This trust builds confidence and belief, it is the core of a value system which enhances the team, department, division or organisation. Read more

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“Kevin was a breath of fresh air, truly inspirational. He focused thoughts for the rest of the conference and beyond.”

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“Motivational, thought provoking and inspiring, our people are still referring to Kevin and his ideas…”

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Kevin in action“…just to say that Kevin Gaskell was absolutely superb and one of the best speakers we have ever hired. Thank you…”